Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Report from a U.S. Auto Manufacturing Plant Floor

I just got home from a party at which I talked with a guy who worked on an assembly line at a U.S. car manufacturing plant.

This is as close a paraphrase of the essence of what he said as I can remember:

"Quality control is a joke...We smoked dope a lot... Our welds were okay--usually. (He laughed.) My cars didn't squeak--usually. (He laughed.)... And we'd put coke cans and dead rats into the axle to see if QC (quality control) would find it. They never did." (He laughed.)


John J. Walters said...

When you say "worked" do you mean "worked earlier that day" or "worked in the 70s?" This is a rather important distinction.

Marty Nemko said...

Good question, John. Alas, I don't know.

Anonymous said...

What is the point of your post?

Anything is possible here:

The "guy" could have been shining you on about working for an auto manufacturer, lying about smoking dope, lying about working on quality control, lying about anything...

Or the "guy" could have worked in quality control for an auto manufacturing plant and been one of the millions of employees in many, many industries who has a substance abuse problem; you anecdote, in other words, may not be indicative of anything in particular but one man's addition issues. For all we know, he may even have been fired because of these assumed issues.

Without knowing this, or even when he ostensibly "worked" for an assembly line, why would you post this?

Marty Nemko said...

Yes, he could have been lying. Yes, it's possibly not generalizable. But I was reporting an anecdote that seemed credible. It would seem to be a worthy data point to add to the zillions of others trying to figure out how America can be competitive in today's world, and the wisdom of we the taxpayer bailing out companies that, according to Consumer Reports and other reviewing entities, continue to produce cars that, on average, are significantly less reliable than cars made in Japan. Even American-built Toyotas have more problems than the Japan-built ones.

Anonymous said...

So Dr. Nemko, welding "coke cans and dead rats" to car axles seems credible? This story, from what we have, does not actually sound terribly credible to me--possible, sure, although unlikely for the very reason that it is so blatantly extreme. It surprises me that someone with your background is willing to entertain, much less believe, something so anecdotal. How does one weld a rat to anything?

Marty Nemko said...

He was credible indeed. He said they put coke cans, rats, etc INSIDE the two parts of the axle, and then sealed it. He explained that they did that to amuse themselves: the rat, so that the smell wouldn't be apparent until after the car passed QC, and the coke cans because they were handy but not inventory so they wouldn't be counted and they thought it would be funny because the can rolling around would make noise but if and when the noise was discovered, QC wouldn't think that something was deliberately put in the axle to sabotage it. They somehow found it funny that some supervisor would have to troubleshoot the car and take the car apart and still not find what caused it.

Indeed, it was how detailed his story was that made that anecdote credible. If he had simply said some not-creative thing like "we were stoned," it would have been less credible.

Also, in addition to those very specific details, details so unusual they'd seem hard to make up on the fly, it was HOW he said what he said that was so credible. I'm having a guest on my radio show Sunday who's an ex-FBI agent and wrote a book that tells how to tell if someone is lying. I've been reading it. With those "tells" fresh in my mind, the guy at the party seems more credible than I even would have thought. He had details at his fingertips, displaying none of the signs of dissembling--hesitation, change in tone or body language.

I have seen many articles in the major media, let alone in a blog post, that include self-report anecdotes that seem much less credible. I can't swear but I'd bet what he said was true.

I'm curious why you're so eager to cast aspersions on his reporting?

Okay. I've wasted too much time responding to what may be a comment designed more to be snarky rather than to elucidate.

euquant said...

Knew somebody who worked BMW production, as recently as in the 90s. Although those guys were at the first glance pretty well trained, the official plant cafeteria served beer, which was normally enjoyed even at breakfast...

Not sure if I'd prefer my premium luxury vehicle produced with or without the benefits of the liquid malty morale improver.

Frankly, the specialization and division of labor in the modern economy demands a certain amount of trust ... whether about the hygiene of livestock, meat and eggs production or as in your example workers in auto assembly.

I can't imagine any manufacturer in this day in age permitting such absolute terrible worker behaviour. The stakes are just too high.... the competition fierce and the brand images to valuable to risk.

Anecdotes such as yours I've heard about the 70s and 80s, however nowadays? I have my doubts.

Dr. Nemko, I've respected your contributions in your blogs and magazine articles for quite a while, however I think this issue is important enough that it deserves more serious treatment and some better sources to corroborate or refute said anecdote. I'm not a jouralist, but I imagine they learn something more than a layman like me might know about getting sources and checking facts. (I like to think I don't do journalism because it pays so poorly, but in all honesty I would never be able to survive such intense competition to have a shot at becoming an opinion leader like a Dr. Nemko.)

At any rate, the US brands already have a poor enough reputation. Whatever you accomplish by spreading this anecdote or rumor, you are likely only reinforicng existing stereotypes, whether deserved or not. I'm not sure that it's warranted, but I put more faith in some kind of statistical analysis. Every year the German press brings out reports about the real winning brands and models with the best quality and reliability. In spite of whatever confounding factors the premium luxury brands never do as well as one would expect which would warrant the irrational esteem that Germans hold for the products of their native auto companies.

In any event, whom do you blame for this kind of appalling performance? If it's the lazy undisciplined Yank workers, then the transplant production facilities turning out Toyotas, Hondas, Benzes and BMWs should also suffer similar monkey business.

I suspect that it's all a case of inaccurate self-pitying self-defeatism that holds poor lazy Yanks can do no right - the flip side of the unrealistic exceptionalism that lets so many boast such nonsense about having the greatest whatever in the world without either trying or comparing to the competition.

It's not as terrible as you fear. But you're not nearly as special as you believe either.

Marty Nemko said...

Thanks for your comment, Euquant.

As I wrote in the previous comment, credible anecdote has its place even in major media, let alone in my personal blog. And, as I outlined in that comment, that guy's credibility was high.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Nemko, how do you know that his credibility was "high"? This is a man who claims to have smoked dope on the job and deliberately sabotaged cars. Either way--if he was telling the truth or not--it seems unlikely that he was a very credible person.

Marty Nemko said...

Having smoked dope on the job does not, apriori, make not-credible his that he and his coworkers sabotaged cars. For reasons I listed in previous comments, I assess the credibility of his reporting as fully high enough to include in an article in the major media, let alone on my personal blog.


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